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Just over the Next Ridge

Photo: Nobody planned for this. Manolo, one of our Tree Bank Co-Directors, displays two coffee leaves infected by the fungal rust pathogen Hemileia vastatrix.

Maybe one day I’ll write one of those business self-help books. “Five Rewarding Ways to Cut Your Income in Half,” or something like that. (Of course I would want to write on something that I’m good at personally.) If someday I do venture into that genre, this is the lesson that I would be most eager to impart:

Say that you want to set up some kind of enterprise. Your concept is clear and you’ve got an approach all planned out. Prospective clients welcome your idea. And you have adequate resources for a solid start. Good job, I would say. But bear in mind that none of these plans can really tell you much about the fate of your enterprise.

I wouldn’t argue that your plans are pointless. I myself have survived many bouts of planning, both chronic and acute, and have emerged better off on that account. It’s just that planning is no match for life. Here is how I know this.

For the past couple of years, I have been working with farmers in our Tree Bank project region, on the Dominican side of a section of the Dominican Republic / Haiti border, to create a program that would replant native forest canopy over large areas at low cost, or that might even pay for itself.

The idea is not complicated. The program would focus on low-value, deforested land on small-holder farms. Small-holder farmers own most of the land in the Tree Bank region — and much of what they own fits that description. This land is no longer fertile enough to be used regularly for annual crops, like corn and beans. But most of it can still support trees, and restoring it to some type of native forest — but not to monoculture tree plantations — is probably the best way to recover its fertility over the long term. The program would begin by planting a variety of native tree species. Trees grow fast in the tropics, so in several years, the plantings should be well established. At that point, coffee and cocoa trees would be planted in, to form a kind of clumpy understory below the native canopy. (Coffee and cocoa trees don’t get very tall.)

Coffee and cocoa are high-value shade-loving crops. Many Tree Bank farmers have long experience with one or both of them. The prospect of coffee and cocoa profits would provide an incentive to enroll land in the program. The Sangha would pay for the labor of establishing the plantings; our Tree Bank nursery would grow the tree stock needed and provide it at no charge to the farmers. Eventually, we would have the option of recovering some or all of those costs by importing and selling the export-quality portion of the coffee and cocoa harvest.

On the farms, the result would be a kind of modified forest — not as valuable ecologically as a real, natural forest, but far better than the parched and meager pasture that covers so much of the region now. And it would make money. Overhead, valuable habitat for birds, bats, and other creatures; below, a profit for our farmers. I see this system as probably our best bet for restoring native forest canopy on a large scale.

This type of planting would not be novel; there are various precedents for it all over the forested (and formerly forested) tropics. So the standard scenario has already proved itself. We think that we can improve upon that standard in some important ways — more about that in another post. But even the unimproved standard would create substantial benefits for our region.

So why aren’t we already planting this coffee and cocoa forest? We already have experience with coffee, an interest in cocoa, our own tree nursery, a commitment to the forests, and connections to nearly 50 farms in the region. What is stopping us? This is where life intrudes.

The idea for the program emerged in early 2014, from conversations between me and Gaspar Pérez Aquino, the Tree Bank’s Dominican Director at the time. Gaspar was also President of our local partner association, the Asociación de Productores de Bosque, Los Cerezos. Los Cerezos is the little municipality where the Tree Bank is based. Gaspar took the idea to the association membership, which endorsed it. By early summer, we were working out the details. It seemed likely that we would be able to start planting before winter arrived. (Winter in our region is too dry for planting.)

But Gaspar died unexpectedly, of a stroke, on September 3rd of that year. He had no obvious successor. It’s probably safe to say that Gaspar knew more about the local vegetation than anyone else in Los Cerezos. Gaspar was also a formidable community-level politician, and his death left many of our member-farmers wondering whether the Tree Bank would continue. Tensions within the Association, which Gaspar had been able to manage, bubbled up to the surface. For a time, it seemed that the Association might splinter into factions — factions that differed not over plans or policies, but just on account of suspicions that some people, somehow, were getting a better deal than others.

All of this took us rather far from coffee and cocoa. In short: we had to put the project on hold while we fixed the organizational problems caused by Gaspar’s death.

At about the same time, we found ourselves in the midst of another crisis. During 2014, a virulent epidemic of the coffee leaf-rust pathogen arrived in our region. The pathogen is known to scientists as Hemileia vastatrix; our farmers know it more simply as “la roya” (the rust). La roya kills coffee leaves. If a coffee tree has little resistance, several defoliations usually kill the tree itself. La roya is a wind-dispersed fungus; it is present in all of the world’s coffee-growing regions, but it is not a scourge in all of those places every year. Its effects vary for all sorts of reasons, many of them poorly understood. No one knows exactly why, but over the course of 2014, outbreaks of the fungus throughout Central America and the Caribbean coalesced into a massive epidemic that killed millions of coffee trees. By early 2015, virtually all of the coffee on our farms was dead. Our Rising Forests® Coffee program had lost its coffee supply, and the region’s most lucrative crop had vanished. (Like most Central American and Caribbean coffee producers, Rising Forests® has a warehouse reserve of raw beans from the 2013 harvest. Raw coffee keeps its flavor for several years if properly stored.)

So as we struggled to reinvent the Tree Bank’s organization, we also had to embark on a massive replanting of our coffee groves. We obtained several strains of rust-resistant seed from CODOCAFE, the Dominican coffee agency, and began growing as many coffee seedlings as the Tree Bank’s nursery would hold. We have produced thousands of seedlings since then, and we expect to produce many thousands more. But given the complete loss of the established groves, we have had to focus on replanting those areas. We couldn’t spare the trees, the time, or the nursery capacity to create any new coffee or cocoa forests.

And then a third problem gradually emerged, beginning in March 2015, which proved to be a dry month. March is usually when the spring rains begin and farmers make a start on their plantings of annual crops. In our region, no one planted in March. Then April was dry as well and by May, it was clear that we were facing a drought. Over the past several decades, drought seems to have become both more frequent and more severe in our region, probably in part because of the spreading deforestation. But global climate change may also be playing a role; 2015 saw an especially powerful El Niño effect, in which an unusually warm area of the Pacific Ocean changes climate patterns over much of the globe. Strong El Niños correlate with drought in the Caribbean basin.

The effects of the drought were greatly exacerbated by the “candelas,” the spring fires that farmers set to clear scrub from their fields. In addition to their clearing effects, the candelas are a kind of poor man’s fertilizer: soils in our region have been extensively overworked, and the burning releases nutrients locked up in the vegetation, thereby raising soil fertility — although not by much and not for long. During the dry spring of 2015, many candelas escaped, burning into nearby pasture and forest. After four months or more without significant rain, much of the landscape was dry as tinder.

Some people — and I hope none of them are members of our Association — apparently took advantage of the extensive burning to practice vandalism by fire. Some stands of the native Hispaniolan pine (Pinus occidentalis) were apparently burned in the hope that the Ministry of the environment would then permit salvage logging of the dead trees. Hispaniolan pine is the region’s most valuable remaining timber species. It’s also critically important for the local ecology. It dominates and defines the region’s mountain-ridge forests. A permit is required to log this species; any sawmill that accepts unregistered logs of “pino criollo,” as the locals call it, is a sawmill without a future. This permitting is an attempt to counter the species’ widespread decline. Hispaniolan pine is endemic to the island (it occurs naturally nowhere else). It is believed to have lost 95% of its original stand area and is listed as endangered by the IUCN.

I was told that vandals were also using fire to steal soil, by burning off cover on mountain slopes, priming them for erosion during the next rainy season. Erosion would bring fresher soil down to the nutrient-famished bean fields below.

The drought greatly complicated work at our nursery. The stream that supplies the nursery with water dried up, so periodically, our crew had to haul in water. This was a time-consuming ordeal. Manolo and Cosme, our Tree Bank Co-Directors, and whoever else happened to be around, would toss miscellaneous containers into the bed of our pickup truck and drive down to where the main road passes over the local tributary of the Rio Artibonito. (“Over” is kind of hopeful; “through” is perhaps more appropriate, given the condition of the road bed.) Whatever water remained in the containers after the truck puttered back up the mountain would be dumped into the nursery tinaco (water tank). Several trips later, the tinaco would be full enough to charge the hose for an extended squirt of the container yard.

As spring progressed, the container yard was filling up with thousands of coffee seedlings. It was still too dry to plant all those little trees, so they just sat in nursery, absorbing more and more trucked-in water. All that coffee left very little space for native trees, so our native-tree production was greatly reduced.

The rains did finally come in June, and we were able to begin distributing coffee seedlings. But by then the drought was causing other problems. Spring planting was delayed and diminished, so the summer harvest was largely ruined. Since summer is the year’s lesser harvest — the main one is in November and December — this failure was not an economic disaster. But it definitely hurt. Like most American farmers, our farmers buy seed and fertilizer (if they can afford it) for every planting. Unlike their American counterparts, they have no crop insurance, so nearly all the money that they spent for the summer harvest was lost.

We were worried that the mid-year losses could damage the Tree Bank’s 2015 cycle of Forest Credit loans. Our Forest Credit program extends low-cost credit to farmers in exchange for conservation easements on their forests. Many of our borrowers had already taken a hit from the loss of their coffee. We thought that the summer harvest failure might drain away enough cash to jeopardize their loan repayments. Repayment problems would, in turn, reduce our loan fund, pushing down benefits to the community as a whole.

As I write, in January 2016, this doesn’t seem to have happened, at least to any great degree. The 2015 loans were due at the end of the year, but punctuality is not a feature of Dominican culture. By mid January, 23 loans had been paid in full; another seven had been paid in part, and six had not been paid at all. This is much better than last January but not nearly as good as our routine before Gaspar’s death and the collapse of coffee. Even so, to judge from what happened in 2014, I expect virtually all of the truant loans to trickle in over the next couple of months, and we’re working on additional improvements to our lending.

But despite all of these troubles, I think that we are now well positioned to act on the forest vision that Gaspar and I created two years ago. Look at what we’ve managed to do over the past year or so: we reinvented our administrative procedures, we planted thousands of rust-resistant coffee seedlings, we improved our Forest Credit lending, we doubled the nursery’s water storage capacity, and we’re expanding its container yard. There’s some collective self-help for you! And there’s much more of that to come.

We also have some new procedures for acting on that vision. We’re planning to start five coffee-and-cocoa forests in 2016. These will be pilot plantings, to test our procedures. Each will be on a different farm, and each will measure a little over three-quarters of an acre (or five tareas, the local unit of land-measure). As time goes on, we’ll extend those plantings and add more. Many more, I hope! After all this time, I’m impatient to scale up.

I’ll keep readers posted on our efforts. In the meantime, I expect to resort to more self-help, which in my case is mostly just persistence and trying to make the most of my colleagues’ many talents. That’s life! Or at least, that’s the life that keeps making terra incognita of terrain that I thought I knew, or that I had hoped to know.

Like all that magnificent forest. Maybe just over the next ridge. I can’t see it but I’m sure it’s there. I’m planning on it.


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Banner: Late October in a mixed stand of hickories, oaks, and American beech at Fountainhead Regional Park, on the northern shore of the Occoquan River, in Fairfax County, Virginia. Photo by Chris Bright. 

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